Reforming the Presidential Primary System

The recent turmoil in the nation’s presidential primary system has renewed interest in possible reforms to the system. While Iowa and New Hampshire’s early primaries may allow lesser-known candidates a chance to build momentum and encourage small-scale retail politics, many have questioned why these two states should enjoy such influence on our national political system. Furthermore, the jockeying for primary dates among states this year has shown the fundamental instability of the current system.

A variety of new plans have been discussed, but one proposed by my girlfriend’s boss, Congressman Sander Levin of Michigan, seems the best considered so far. Here’s a quick review of the proposals.

A National Primary would put all primaries and caucuses on one day. This would eliminate any benefits of having a staggered primary system. The Delaware Plan would divided the states into four groups according to size, and set the four primary dates according to state size. The National Association of Secretaries of States have proposed a National Rotating Regional Primary System. Their plan would retain Iowa and New Hampshire as the first primaries, and then divide the other states into four regions, and each region would take turns sharing the first primary during each presidential election.

The American Plan, or Graduated Random Presidential Primary System, would create a 20-week primary schedule ending in June. The primary season would be divided into 10 two week periods. Only the smallest states would be eligible to vote during the first two week period, with the larger states being forced to wait until later in the schedule. In order to prevent locking the biggest states into the last primary periods, some adjustments have been made towards the end of the schedule. Here is a list of the total number of electoral votes each state could have to qualify for each two week primary period: 8, 16, 24, 56, 32, 64, 40, 72, 48, 80. Within this somewhat complex set of restrictions, states would be randomly assigned to windows to hold their primaries. Advocates like the plan’s ability to push the entire process closer to the nominating conventions, preserve retail politics in small states, and allowing weaker candidates build momentum in small states. The drawbacks are the plan’s complexity and lack of specificity regarding precise dates, perhaps opening up the possibility of jockeying within windows or primaries on unusual days of the week.

Lastly we come to the Interregional Primary Plan suggested by legislation introduced by Congressman Sander Levin and Senator Bill Nelson. Under their plan, the country is divided into six regions. Six primary dates between March and June would be set. On each date, one state or group of smaller states from each region would have their primary. After each election the states which enjoyed the first primary date would move to the sixth position, meaning every state would rotate through the important first primary date. The plan regulates the length and tempo of the primary system, and unlike the Secretaries of States’ plan prevent regional bias in any one election. Unlike the current system, large states would have the opportunity to have the first primary position, but the total number of primaries on that first date would be limited. Critics have also pointed out the plan would require travel between states, but this seems a modest price to pay for regional representation between states. Here’s what the schedule might look like under the Levin/Nelson plan:

Interregional Primary Reform Proposal

Although each plan has advantages and drawbacks, it seems some type of reform is necessary. A proposal that would push the primaries closer to the conventions and give larger and more diverse states a larger voice could improve upon today’s unstable system.

> FairVote Presidential Elections Reform Information
> Wikipedia: U.S. Presidential Primary
> Levin/Nelson Interregional Primary Reform Plan

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. just a quick observation….looks like the levin/nelson plan has six regions, not five.

    i love the idea of blowing up the current mess though. let’s find something more equitable.

  2. It’s good that people are thinking and talking about how to fix the primary system and coming up with many ideas.
    Would you let me know when we get to the subject of the electoral college because that’s the one that really needs fixing!

  3. Rob,

    I noticed your blog today (June 6) because you supplied this link on your post on the 2008 Democratic Convention Watch ‘site.

    What I learned, looking at your suggestions, is that the National Association of Secretaries of State is actually looking into this situation. This is a very good thing. It’s important that people who actually have some POWER are thinking about changes.

    Because of you, I discovered the website. There’s lots of terrific information there and it really seems as if we might get something moving before the system decends into utter chaos.

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